He did it, hut he did it the hard way. Tadej Pogačar didn’t bank on his sprint in a small group but threw caution to the wind with a solo attack down the final descent.
Not quite the vanilla start where an breakaway floated, it took several moves and we saw Filippo Ganna among the attackers. The important early event was Remco Evenepoel crashing along with UAE’s Sjoerd Bax. Bax came off worse with a fractured femur while Evenpoel looked sore, his kit shredded.
The Ghisallo “climb”, taken the wrong way from Asso, saw things calm down as the day’s breakaway established a lead. EF Education and Jumbo-Visma worked to ensure it didn’t get much more than four minutes, the proverbial tight leash.
Lombardia Italy’s fourth biggest region. You could tour it in a week and still have places to explore, a region that has the high Alps and flat plains but this race sticks to the characteristic foothills and lakes. The weather was worthy of a postcard, dappling sunshine on the lakes, just golden enough to highlight the pastel-painted villas. For a good while this was all there was to enjoy given the racing was processional.
Things got going on the climb to Berbenno as team Soudal-Quickstep massed on the front of the bunch with Mauri Vansevanant setting the pace with his pecking-chicken style where presumably his team’s core strength trainer is rubbing their hands in anticipation of the next Calpe sessions. The pace saw several including Enric Mas, last year’s runner-up, dropped. But Evenepoel too? He seemed to drift back too, he stopped, changed his radio and so the Belgian team shut things down.
Ben Healy attacked early on the Passo dello Crocetta with DSM’s Oscar Onley, a Celtic combine of sorts. EF Education’s plan clear, they’d been working earlier and now launched Healy with a longshot move that might give him the win and if not force others to chase while team leader Richard Carapaz could go with the big names on the next climb. Healy’s one of the season’s revelations and already rivals know two things: he can’t sprint and you don’t gift him a minute’s lead. So UAE, Quickstep and Jumbo-Visma gave chase.
This race is branded as il Lombardia, instead of the Giro di Lombardia, because organisers RCS want to preserve the Giro label for their grand tour. Yet the race with its longer Alpine-style climbs was now resembling the Giro and a grand tour stage for the way the last climb to Ganda was the set-piece event and Jumbo-Visma and UAE were jostling for position on the approach to the climb. Adam Yates attacked the acceleration saw Evenepoel dropped.
A group formed with Adam Yates, Andrea Bagioli, Simon Yates and Chris Harper, Michael Woods, Richard Carapaz and Aleksandr Vlasov, and Tadej Pogačar floated across while Primoz Roglič was either being very patient or struggling as he took his time to make it across.
Adam Yates did a solid turn and Pogačar attacked and only Vlasov could follow. The move suggested Pogačar was the strongest, but only just. He could make moves and open up a gap, but just. UAE here has the numbers and this helped too, but just. Yates was less Plan B and more sherpa. As Pogačar and Vlasov approached the top of the climb Roglič made his move to bridge the gap in his wake Bagioli, Simon Yates, Carapaz, Carlos Rodriguez and Adam Yates made it across. Carapaz was only metres behind but by himself.
Only instead of a regrouping and riders catching their breath, Tadej Pogačar attacked and went down the descent solo. Visibly schussing down the bends faster he began to open up a gap, at first just a few metres and daylight amid one helicopter TV shot, then a few seconds and the gap kept growing.
This move was risk twice over, tactically for having to take risks down a tricky descent, strategically because there was still a long flat road to come where a group can ride faster. But it also meant Pogačar got an option on any motorbike traffic ahead and every time the chase group hesitated he gained a few more seconds. The stand-off grew and soon Pogačar had almost a minute. Only then then he started he started to get cramp, introducing a moment of suspense for everyone. But his legs didn’t seize up and behind the chase group was splitting and even in danger of being swamped by a second group led by Evenepoel.
Historic but not a vintage addition. TV coverage from start to finish showed off the scenery but the sporting spectacle was more predictable, viewers didn’t miss much if they only sat down for the final hour and from then on things were gradual and predictable rather than chaotic. The race feels better if it starts in Bergamo and finishes in Como. To glance at the result is to see Pogačar won yet again but it was the manner of his win that impressed and there was suspense in the end, especially because he took off on descent.
Once again Pogačar gets cited among the greats, this time joining the six member club of three time Lombardia winners, and becoming the third rider after Alfredo Binda and Fausto Coppi to win three in a row, and he’s only just turned 25. Andrea Bagioli’s second place was impressive, he won Gran Piemonte in the week, showing twice now he can hang with the best on mid-length climbs and packs a sprint and it’ll be interesting to see how he fares at Lidl-Trek. Roglič made the podium, a near-miss for a rider who must be looking around for the races he’s still to win, presumably the Tour de France and this is why he’s changing teams, although “passing Go” on his way to Bora-hansgrohe by the sounds of things too.
It’s hard to watch Il Lombardia without a wistful feel, the lengthening shadows, the fading light don’t just mark the end of an autumnal afternoon, they signal the cycling season is coming to an end and invite us to reflect on the season passed. Would Pogačar have signed up for this year’s results in January? You’d think he’d say no given he’d reject second place in the Tour de France, but there he was winning in October again and probably the best rider of the season, overhauling Jonas Vingegaard because of the range; and arguably surpassing Mathieu van der Poel for the span and in a season where he was out with injury for weeks.
The big names and teams are carving up the sport but if there’s dominance, it’s still spread between several teams, Jumbo-Visma made the grand tours their own but have come up short in the Monuments where Pogačar, Evenepoel and van der Poel have thrived, and while this season hasn’t quite finished, seeing which way the cards fall next season feels more enticing than some of the remaining races.
Finally Thibaut Pinot was awarded a goat by the organisers before the start. He’s finished his final race, celebrating with the fans massed at the curva Pinot. After Lombardia has media booked for Sunday evening in Paris, he told Swiss newapaper Le Temps that the train back home on Monday morning will be the train de la liberté, as media duties and visits to Paris – except for PSG games at the Parc des Princes – are probably the things about the job he’s liked the least. He promised to be back at the Tour but at a guess he’s more likely to be found roadside amid a cloud of merguez BBQ smoke rather than in a VIP zone.